Andy Ayers of Eat Here St. Louis on Connecting Farmers With St. Louis-Area Chefs
Written by Bethany Christo for Feast Magazine
May 29, 2015
Andy Ayers is the go-to guy who connects farmers and producers in Missouri and southern Illinois with the St. Louis-area chefs who want to serve local, seasonal ingredients in their restaurants.
Andy Ayers doesn’t grow fresh fruits and vegetables, raise meat or make food products – he wrangles them. He’s the go-to guy who connects farmers and producers in Missouri and southern Illinois with the St. Louis-area chefs who want to serve local, seasonal ingredients in their restaurants.
Eat Here St. Louis started in 2008, but Ayers hatched the idea much earlier, after recognizing the need for a fresh-produce middleman as the former chef-owner of Riddle’s Restaurant in northwest St. Louis county and later at Riddle’s Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar in the Delmar Loop, both now closed.
Ayers had been sourcing from local farmers since the ‘80s (“Before it was cool,” he says) and reached out to his wide network of chefs and farmers to cultivate the business. His reach now extends year-round to more than 60 growers and producers and some 45 chefs, a number that expands almost every day.
What St. Louis-area restaurants do you work with? My favorite customers are the ones who try to really encompass locality and seasonality into their menu-planning all year long. Most of the things I sell are not going to be available 12 months of the year, so I’m asking chefs to be a little bit flexible. I have regular calls from some high-profile places like Niche, Cardwell’s at the Plaza, Vin de Set, Annie Gunn’s and Whittemore House, and then there’s some places I work with that the casual diner may not realize are going out of their way to concentrate on local food, like SqWires, The Royale, Russell’s on Macklind and Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.
Why are you committed to local food? I include, on every line of every invoice that comes from Eat Here St. Louis, who grew it and where, which chefs can communicate to their patrons. I started buying local at my restaurant in the ‘80s; people used to tell me how hard I was making their menu-reading because I had so many details about [the] food and its provenance – people didn’t give a damn where the broccoli came from! But my own motivation as a chef was that it was better-tasting food this way. That, of course, is the primary motivation for any chef.
How have you seen the local food scene change since launching Eat Here in 2008? I think a lot of people have gotten over the idea that sourcing locally is a fad. It’s mainstream, and it’s going to remain a permanent part of the restaurant scene. The whole thing is driven by customer demand; people want to know where their food comes from, and they don’t want to hear a faraway place.
How do your services help farmers? The most significant thing I do to help farmers is to increase their sales by doing what many of them don’t have the time or the resources to do – market and distribute their stuff. I also try to help growers understand what it is that chefs are looking for. For example, two years ago, I first heard from chefs who were looking for green strawberries. But I couldn’t believe the response I got from growers. I’ll never forget the one old boy who said, “You want the strawberries green? That ain’t right!” But it’s a new income stream for growers that no one used to have any interest in.
What type of producers do you seek out? I’m looking for hands-on, owner-operated businesses that go way out of their way to have the best-quality product. It’s encouraging for me to see a group of relatively young farmers taking over operations and putting more effort into the farms that have been in their families for decades. These are not idealistic, first-time farmers; these are people who grew up on a farm and know that it’s hard work. It’s promising for us all.
Eat Here St. Louis, by appointment only, 314.518.6074, eatherestl.com